Image from Arts Council England
Artillery Row

How the Arts Council abandoned England

The Arts Council are using the pandemic to reward their cronies rather than saving art

The founding of Shakespeare’s Globe has, without any serious competition, been the most important British theatrical event of my lifetime. It is unique. A towering achievement of architecture, public engagement, education, historical research and academia as well as of art, it has since spawned numerous pale imitations, none of which have dared attempt anything approaching a similar level of craft, scope, ambition or accuracy, and is probably the most internationally respected theatre building in the United Kingdom today. It is unprecedentedly democratic, socially progressive, accessible, and rooted fundamentally in British heritage and the blend of high culture and low. It does not qualify for emergency aid from Arts Council England, and is now on the verge of going bust. 

The Globe is not alone. Outside of London things are worse; Southampton’s award winning Nuffield Theatre has already announced that it is going into administration, as has the Leicester Haymarket, just three years after a council investment of £3 million. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust are both facing similar dangers, as are many others. In recent weeks the Globe has joined institutions such as the Donmar Warehouse and the Really Useful Group in submitting testimony to a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee outlining the need for government subsidy of the arts outside and beyond the reach of Arts Council England’s strictures if they are to survive this crisis. It is desperately important, to both our culture and our economy, that they do.

Back in January, ACE unveiled its strategy for the next ten years. Vague and well-meaning, filled with unnecessary graphic design and well-workshopped, corporate turns of phrase, it provided minimal hard guidance on how it would be enacting its aspirations, and almost no indication of what its new procedural rules would be. What it did confirm is that the word “artist” is no longer politically correct and should be replaced with the term “creative practitioner,” that only work which is actively designed to fight climate change will be eligible for funding, and that the limited budget it gives to professional artists must now also be shared out amongst all amateur creative activities in England; there is officially no longer considered to be any inherent value in Shakespearean theatre over or above that of a senior’s water colouring class, a pub karaoke night, or a church bake sale (all of which I have been known to enjoy). Art must no longer be judged on quality, rather funding will now be based on “relevance” over “excellence”.

A lot has happened since January.

The following month an array of top theatres were threatened with having their funding withdrawn for failing to meet diversity quotas. The Donmar Warehouse, for example, was found to under-represent men, ethnic minorities, and the disabled amongst its workforce (in relation to national statistics). The same was found to be true of the Almeida, and similar conclusions were reached for the Hampstead Theatre, the Royal Opera House, English National Ballet, English National Opera, and others. The quality of the artistic output of these institutions was not apparently deemed to be relevant. These institutions are now also facing the prospect of permanent closure in light of Covid restrictions. The irony, of course, is that all of these bodies are considerably more diverse and representative than the Executive Board of Arts Council England.

The arts should cater to all communities, not act as imperialist missionaries educating the ignorant philistines

This is only part of the picture. As Kenan Malik wrote for the Guardian, back in 2018, “Britain is diverse in many other ways too – by religion, age, occupation, regional affiliation, politics and so on.” Are these aspects of diversity being addressed? According to data published this year from ArtsProfessionals, more than 80% of people working in the arts and cultural sectors are afraid to express unfashionable, conservative, or controversial opinions under threat of bullying and professional ostracisation, and “nearly 70% of respondents said they would not criticise a funder for fear of jeopardising future investment and 40% said they had been subject to pressure from funders for speaking out.” These are abhorrent statistics, and in light of the fact that a key measure of success highlighted in ACE’s recent governmental review is the high degree to which “key stakeholders” praised the effectiveness of the body, it becomes problematic to an almost corrupt degree. Redressing this culture of self-censorship, intimidation and mono-cultural orthodoxy should be a top priority for the Arts Council, but (perhaps because they actively benefit from it) they remain silent. As ArtsProfessional Editor Amanda Parker puts it, “Our survey shines a damning light on the coercion, bullying, intimidation and intolerance that is active among a community that thinks of itself as liberal, open minded and equitable.”

Whilst last years Stretching the Flag report from Global Future rightly celebrates their findings that “almost 40% of our most celebrated cultural leaders are from multicultural backgrounds – well above the general population,” and that “in most branches of our cultural industries, those from migrant families or ethnic minority backgrounds are over-achieving at the very top,” it is important to remember that the benefits and the obligations of cultural diversity do not begin and end with ethnicity. As Akram Khan reminded us at the time, traditionalist conservatives and rural farming communities are just as much a part of Britain as “the multi-ethnic melting pots of Leicester, Birmingham and London,” even if they are deemed to hold the wrong opinions and vote the wrong way; to undervalue representation of these and similar groups in the arts can only result in an artistic community that is disconnected from and out of touch with significant bulks of society, and increasingly struggles to justify itself as a beneficiary of their taxes. This is especially ironic in light of ACE’s new priority of relevance. Relevance to whom? As Khan goes on to say, “in some cases, exclusivity in the arts is increasing rather than decreasing. Our culture should be ours collectively, not reserved for a few – and we have to work tirelessly to make sure that is the case.”

The Globe needs £5 million to survive. Arts Council England has an emergency relief fund of £90 million. Instead of using it to support the most important arts bodies we possess, instead of using it to ensure that the highest quality of arts and culture in this country is kept alive through Coronavirus, instead of making sure that those institutions which are usually self-sufficient (and thus cost the taxpayer nothing) are maintained, they are doubling down on their crusade. Rather than acknowledge the unprecedented crisis facing the industry as a whole and evolving their approach to better react to it, the Arts Council are exploiting the pandemic as an opportunity to reward the loyal cronies who have a long history of ticking whatever boxes they’re told, and to starve to death all who aren’t part of their narrow club of pre-approved, officially “relevant” creative practitioners; all who have not demonstrated successful receipt of long-term public funding are ineligible. All who are not deemed “relevant” enough are rejected; artistic quality simply doesn’t come into it. How extraordinary that as recently as 2014 then-Chief Executive Alan Davey was telling us that ACE would be failing in its remit if it were to make funding decisions based “on anything but art.” By their own definition, then, whether through intention or incompetence, they are failing us. 

At drama school I was taught that theatre should question, provoke, shock, surprise; that predictability is mediocrity, and mediocrity is death. That art should dissent from and challenge orthodoxies. I cannot remember the last time I watched a play in which it wasn’t abundantly clear that the entire (predictable) audience were simply sitting in a room with other people they agree with, nodding along while their opinions, preferences and prejudices were confirmed and indulged, as they all knew they would be before they bought the ticket. Like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so many others, the subsidised theatre has become an echo-chamber, in which a bland but enlightened cultural minority tell each other their own pre-approved stories, and exclude the ignorant masses. We do not need more one-man shows in which a single performer plays themselves talking about themselves in a script which they themselves have written for an audience of their friends.

So what do we need? As our first priority, we need to recognise the most nationally important arts institutions, judged on the basis of artistic excellence and unique value first and foremost, and do all that it takes to protect them. We need theatres and arts centres to reimagine themselves as leaner, specialist, focused and artist-oriented; we must avoid the inverse pyramid whereby 80% of a theatre’s budget pays administrative staff and outreach officers, with only what’s left of the remaining 20% eventually going to artists (as Mike Bradwell, founder of Hull Truck, so eloquently expresses in The Reluctant Escapologist). We need arts institutions to reflect and cater to their communities, not to act as imperialist missionaries educating the ignorant philistines. We need to engage with all of society. We need to avoid cannibalising arts budgets to subsidise amateur activities that will operate perfectly well unfunded. We need to eradicate the odious term of “creative practitioner” and commit to the responsibilities of craft and art and “Artist.” We need to use art to re-find the unity that society has lost, and to forge a shared culture which can bind us all moving forward, together. We need not just to encourage inclusion, but to eradicate exclusion. We need a transparent, accountable, reflective (in all senses) Arts Council which is actively aiming to help us achieve these things. We need to ask the questions. We need to hold them to account.

In the bleakness of a mid-pandemic theatre scene, ACE’s current strategy and response seem astonishingly out of touch; a mere addendum to the Arts in England, incapable of operating as the backbone and defender of an entire industry, let alone of an entire culture, which we now so desperately need it to be. We no longer have the societal luxury of allowing a small, undiverse, unelected Executive Board made up of highly-paid, white, elite-university-educated, London-dwelling hypocrites to have seemingly unchecked control over how public money is spent in service of their personal, bullying and patronising cultural crusade, which actively seeks to silence dissent and artificially twist artistic output in this country into mere propaganda for their controlling, naive, middle-class world view, with the bare minimum of accountability and no real public scrutiny. Our culture is all of us and our art should be too. We can no longer afford to indulge this stale, establishment arrogance. We need to save the arts. We have to save the Globe. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover